You may not have known this, but a traditional Lenten practice is to read a spiritual book all the way through, beginning to end. And have I got a book for you—The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose feast day happens to be today, March 9th. The great theme of Lent is the 40-year Israelite exodus in the desert. In the office of Readings of the Divine Office, Lent kicks off with the story of the persecution of the Israelites in Egypt and their deliverance by God through Moses. And so St. Gregory’s reflection on the Biblical story of Moses is just a perfect spiritual work for the forty days of Lent.
St. Gregory is the younger brother of St. Basil the Great, a Doctor of the Church who was responsible for promoting monasticism and giving shape to that vocation through his influential writings. He had a great influence on St. Benedict and thus on the monastic tradition of the West. Gregory and Basil with their friend Gregory Nazianzen are called the Cappadocian fathers, and they exerted enormous influence over the Church, especially in the Eastern Church.
In the Orthodox churches of the East, the monk is held in highest esteem, as he represents the best and purest practice of true Christianity. All Christians are called to emulate the monk to whatever degree their state in life will allow. This distinctly Orthodox understanding of Christianity comes from the influence of the Cappadocian fathers, and you can find these ideas in The Life of Moses.
The Life of Moses
For St. Gregory, Moses represented the apotheosis of the iconic monk and Christian. For Gregory, those episodes in Moses’ life when he leaves his world are symbolic of monastic withdrawal. First, he leaves Egypt after killing the Egyptian. And later, he leaves the Israelites in the desert when he climbs the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. These scenes depict Moses as the monk who withdraws from the world. But in that withdrawal from the world, big things happen, as St. Gregory points out. Moses encounters God, first in the burning bush and later when Moses receives the Ten Commandments. And what does God do with Moses? He sends Moses back into the world as God’s servant. But he also sends Moses back to rule and govern the world that he originally retreated from. Moses even exercises power over Pharaoh through the plagues which God inflicts through the words and commands of Moses, His messenger.
It’s a paradoxical idea: In order to rule the world, you must first abandon it. It seems crazy, but history has vindicated the great saint’s message. Read How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods sometime. In that well researched book, you can see how the monasteries played a major role in the development of Western society. They did it without an army or a king, without ever winning a war. That’s because human civilization is less about conquest and all about invention and creation. What matters is the mind and the soul. Humans lead with the intellect more than muscle, and that’s why the monks were so influential despite having no armies or kings. Monastic innovations in agriculture and metallurgy were more important, as were their prodigious publishing endeavors.
This is the story I tell in my first book. How the Christian transformation of the mind and the uplifting of the human soul from its dark, barbaric slumbers led to a transformation of civilization. More on that later.
The Moral of the Story
What has been clear for some time now is that the West is in a steep decline. St. Gregory offers a spiritual solution—monastic withdrawal from a self-destructing world. The point, though, is not to escape, but rather, to find God and let Him transform us, so that we will be properly equipped and enlightened to bring light and healing to a world drowning in darkness. Otherwise, it’s just the blind leading the blind. And we all know how that ends.
More on St. Gregory tomorrow!